Bringing an investigator’s eye to complex social challenges

June 20, 2024

She brings an investigator’s eye to big institutional and societal challenges whose solutions can have wide-ranging, long-term impacts. Russo’s work with Finkelstein led her toward identifying, studying, and developing answers to complex questions. Understanding how landowners bid in CRP auctions can help identify and improve the program’s function. “We may be able to improve targeting and achieve more cost-effective conservation by adjusting the CRP’s scoring system,” Russo argues. Opportunities may exist to scale the incremental changes under study for other conservation programs and carbon offset markets more generally.

Anna Russo likes puzzles. They require patience, organization, and a view of the big picture. She brings an investigator’s eye to big institutional and societal challenges whose solutions can have wide-ranging, long-term impacts.

Russo’s path to MIT began with questions. She didn’t have the whole picture yet. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” says Russo, who is completing her PhD in economics in 2024. “I was good at math and science and thought I wanted to be a doctor.”

While completing her undergraduate studies at Yale University, where she double majored in economics and applied math, Russo discovered a passion for problem-solving, where she could apply an analytical lens to answering the kinds of thorny questions whose solutions could improve policy. “Empirical research is fun and exciting,” Russo says.

After Yale, Russo considered what to do next. She worked as a full-time research assistant with MIT economist Amy Finkelstein. Russo’s work with Finkelstein led her toward identifying, studying, and developing answers to complex questions. 

“My research combines ideas from two fields of economic inquiry — public finance and industrial organization — and applies them to questions about the design of environmental and health care policy,” Russo says. “I like the way economists think analytically about social problems.”

Narrowing her focus

Studying with and being advised by renowned economists as both an undergraduate and a doctoral student helped Russo narrow her research focus, fitting more pieces into the puzzle. “What drew me to MIT was its investment in its graduate students,” Russo says.

Economic research meant digging into policy questions, identifying market failures, and proposing solutions. Doctoral study allowed Russo to assemble data to rigorously follow each line of inquiry.

“Doctoral study means you get to write about something you’re really interested in,” Russo notes. This led her to study policy responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation. 

“In my first year, I worked on a project exploring the notion that floodplain regulation design doesn’t do a good job of incentivizing the right level of development in flood-prone areas,” she says. “How can economists help governments convince people to act in society’s best interest?”

It’s important to understand institutional details, Russo adds, which can help investigators identify and implement solutions. 

“Feedback, advice, and support from faculty were crucial as I grew as a researcher at MIT,” she says. Beyond her two main MIT advisors, Finkelstein and economist Nikhil Agarwal — educators she describes as “phenomenal, dedicated advisors and mentors” — Russo interacted regularly with faculty across the department. 

Russo later discovered another challenge she hoped to solve: inefficiencies in conservation and carbon offset programs. She set her sights on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program because she believes it and programs like it can be improved. 

The CRP is a land conservation plan administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency. In exchange for a yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.

“I think we can tweak the program’s design to improve cost-effectiveness,” Russo says. “There’s a trove of data available.” The data include information like auction participants’ bids in response to well-specified auction rules, which Russo links to satellite data measuring land use outcomes. Understanding how landowners bid in CRP auctions can help identify and improve the program’s function. 

“We may be able to improve targeting and achieve more cost-effective conservation by adjusting the CRP’s scoring system,” Russo argues. Opportunities may exist to scale the incremental changes under study for other conservation programs and carbon offset markets more generally.  

Economics, Russo believes, can help us conceptualize problems and recommend effective alternative solutions.

The next puzzle

Russo wants to find her next challenge while continuing her research. She plans to continue her work as a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, after which she’ll join the Harvard Department of Economics as an assistant professor. Russo also plans to continue helping other budding economists since she believes in the importance of supporting other students.   

Russo’s advisors are some of her biggest supporters. 

Finklestein emphasizes Russo’s curiosity, enthusiasm, and energy as key drivers in her success. “Her genuine curiosity and interest in getting to the bottom of a problem with the data — with an econometric analysis, with a modeling issue — is the best antidote for [the stress that can be associated with research],” Finklestein says. “It's a key ingredient in her ability to produce important and credible work.”

“She's also incredibly generous with her time and advice,” Finklestein continues, “whether it's helping an undergraduate research assistant with her senior thesis, or helping an advisor such as myself navigate a data access process she's previously been through.”

“Instead of an advisor-advisee relationship, working with her on a thesis felt more like a collaboration between equals,” Agarwal adds. “[She] has the maturity and smarts to produce pathbreaking research.

“Doctoral study is an opportunity for students to find their paths collaboratively,” Russo says. “If I can help someone else solve a small piece of their puzzle, that’s a huge positive. Research is a series of many, many small steps forward.” 

Identifying important causes for further investigation and study will always be important to Russo. “I also want to dig into some other market that’s not working well and figure out how to make it better,” she says. “Right now I’m really excited about understanding California wildfire mitigation.” 

Puzzles are made to be solved, after all.

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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